Will Culture Trump Cash For Central Illinois Farmers?

Sep 4, 2019

This is the second in a four-part series about how the USDA’s trade relief payments are playing out in Central Illinois. It was produced by WCBU and WGLT.

Farmers are a key component of the coalition that put Donald Trump in the White House in 2016. But the ongoing trade war with China is exacting an increasingly heavy toll on the agriculture economy and that segment of Trump support.

The Trump administration has offset some of the economic pain incurred by the trade war with the Market Facilitation Program. It gave American farmers $12 billion in aid in 2018, and $16 billion this year.

The USDA shifted the funding formula from a per-bushel basis to a per-acre basis this year. U.S. Sen. Dick Durbin (D-Ill.) said this may further favor large agriculture producers over small family farmers.

“What we find is, and this would not be the first time, is that some of the largest producers end up getting the most help, the biggest checks, and some of that may go over the line at times," Durbin said. 

U.S. Rep. Darin LaHood (R-Peoria) said he shares that concern and wants to talk about it with Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue. LaHood supports the subsidy. But, he says farmers in his district would rather be selling their product on the open market.

“My farmers want trade. They don’t want aid. They don’t want to be subsidized. And there’s some thought that we lose some of our market share and customers the longer we go without being able to ship to China, and they look at other alternatives," LaHood said. 

Farmers say similar things. The American Farm Bureau estimates agricultural exports to China have fallen by nearly half, from $19.5 billion in 2017 to just $9.1 billion in 2018. A recent Chinese freeze on U.S. ag imports may drive the number to zero. Yet for many in agriculture, financial bottom lines may not be a top priority. Craig Curtis is a professor of political science at Bradley University.

“Forces have given the farming communities in America kind of fatalism. Things go up, things go down. What’s important is that we stick to our basic values, and Trump gives them an opportunity to do that," said Curtis. 

Those values are largely conservative. Environmental Working Group data on federal farm subsidies doled out between 1995 and 2019 shows the top three subsidized counties in Illinois lean heavily Republican: Iroquois, McLean and Livingston. Rounding out the top five counties are LaSalle and Champaign. Lasalle County traditionally leans blue but has tilted red in the past few years. Champaign County has become a Democratic bastion in recent years after decades of GOP control.

Those five counties alone received more than $41.8 million out of the $333 million Illinois received in projected subsidies under the MFP program in 2019. That number tops $42 million if we swap Sangamon, for Lasalle. Sangamon received about $200,000 more than LaSalle this year.

Peoria, Tazewell, and Woodford Counties received just over 10 million in federal farm subsidies this year. Tazewell and Woodford vote Republican. Peoria County is a reliable Democratic vote in many statewide and federal races.

Curtis said farmers are used to economic pain.

The trade war shows no sign of of ending. The president has already declared he is willing to distribute another round of subsidies to farmers in 2020 in the lead-up to the elections.

“In the short run, I don’t think that’s going to affect the support many of these rural Americans have for the president. They’re his cultural warrior, in the sense that they’re protecting rural America from an assault on their basic values by the forces of the left and the Democratic Party," said Curtis. 

A Pew Research Center analysis says Trump beat Clinton 62 percent to 34 percent in rural America in 2016.

If culture truly trumps economics for these voters, Curtis says the pattern is likely to hold next year.